Matthias Bürger, Vice President Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance EMEA at Zimmer Biomet, has an impressive career spanning 30 years in the medical device industry at some of the world’s most reputable medical technology companies.
Elemed’s founder, Elena Kyria, sat down with Matthias to learn about his Career in Medtech. They talked about how to be successful in a global leadership role, the likely impact of Artificial Intelligence in MedTech, and how working in the medical device industry affects how you see things as a patient! Matthias also shared key insights about his career in the quality assurance and regulatory field and why he stepped away from building phones and satellites back in the ’90s.
The accidental “aha” moment that changed it all
Classic electrical engineering just didn’t cut it for Matthias. He realised early on that he didn’t want to sit all day in an office testing printers to find out if they blew up or not. He had little interest in making mobile phones or designing satellites. During a visit to a trade show in Dusseldorf in his final year at University, he had a defining “aha” moment. He saw an opportunity to use his knowledge and work with medical professionals to help find better treatment options. Having completed his degree in electrical engineering in Germany, he went on to work in academic research for a couple of years and then built little gadgets as a research engineer. At the same time, he pursued his advanced studies in biomedical engineering first in Germany, and then in the US, and never looked back. He spent the next 20 years working in America for a number of global MedTech companies.
What can you tell us about the cultural differences when it comes to working in Europe vs the US?
Today we are all global citizens. Whether we are European or American, we drive the same types of cars, follow similar traffic rules and eat fast food. It’s not like you’re relocating to Mars if you move continents. The cultural difference between the two is there, only more subtle and deeper. American companies just have their own certain ways that one needs to embrace and navigate as part of the experience.
To be honest, I actually suffered a culture shock of a reverse kind when I eventually returned to Germany and found myself a stranger in my own country.
Matthias’ most defining moment
Whenever he ended up in unchartered waters, he innovated to keep afloat. When the new EU medical device directive and CE marking came out in the late ’90s, he was working at TUV. As well as being a technical expert, he was tasked to bring on his own clients. Seeing an opportunity, he wasted no time; he used his self-acquired marketing skills and quickly organised morning training sessions and two-day seminars with a fellow colleague on the new Directives. It was a success, demand was high, and his efforts were bringing in results. He realised the potential in the regulatory industry and slowly but surely closed the door on electrical engineering as a career. He didn’t, however, lose touch with things outside of the regulatory and clinical compliance world – to this day he has a keen interest in engineering innovations and business.
Don’t be afraid to try something new
I gave this advice once to someone I knew and he did very well from it. He was an engineer, with “just” a bachelor’s but he felt he had to get his master’s in engineering because that’s what everyone expected him to do. He was an outstanding engineer already and he had a genuine interest and talent for business. “Why would you do a master’s in engineering? Go get an MBA”, I told him, and so he did. Now he is at Director level at Amazon, which is completely different from his original biomedical background and he is content with his choice. Even now, he recalls our conversation and how it changed his life. All he did was kept an open mind and listened to a different perspective. If he hadn’t, he would have gone off and done more engineering. If I can touch a few people’s lives like that, help them grow and develop their careers, that to me is legacy, something you leave behind.
How 3D printing is impacting the MedTech industry
3D printing has been the thing that was supposed to change the world for the last 10 years. We are still waiting. Yes, it’s already a reality, even in orthopaedics (think spinal implants) but it hasn’t really changed the world…yet. Just look at 3D printing companies and their stocks that were once flying high. The technology is still in research mode and it needs to be more advanced before we can broadly apply it everywhere in medical technology. It’s definitely having an impact on certain pockets of healthcare, like printing biological tissue. I think we will see more of it as a part of a process portfolio to make products that we haven’t been able to create or make current ones better. For now, it’s unlikely to be replacing anything else just yet.
What about Artificial Intelligence? Will it change MedTech?
In my opinion, absolutely. Medical professionals have used technology for diagnostics for years, such as interpretations of X-rays and EKGs. AI is likely to make diagnoses faster and more accurate and consequently improve standard treatments and protocols, especially in the ER.
I don’t think doctors and other healthcare specialists should worry, though. AI is still just mathematics and computer engineering. It’s an excellent tool to integrate with diagnostics and robotics. But robots still need a surgeon to decide what they should do. Diagnosis is not the equivalent of taking a precise electrical reading and translating that into action. Diagnosis and treatment are a form of art, they need a living person to interpret and apply them to another living person.
I have no doubt that doctors want to spend more time with patients and less with machinery. With tools that carry out the preliminary work, patients will have access to more human interaction during their treatment, which will positively impact the outcome.
What advice can you give to our younger audience? / What is your biggest regret?
If anyone is curious and excited about something, even if it’s unrelated to what they’re doing and others may think it a little weird, they should just go for it.
My regret is that I didn’t explore other opportunities early on in my career. I’m talking about starting out as an engineer and not exposing myself to fields such as marketing, general management or sales. I guess I was just trying to reach the top of the pyramid of engineering as fast as I could. But once you’re in the top part of that pyramid, it’s even harder to switch to something new or delve into other things such as business development.
My advice for those who are early in their careers is to be patient and don’t jump too early or when things get tough. Perseverance and patience often work in our favour.
What’s it like to be a patient, when you work in medical technology?
As a biomedical engineer, I am a difficult patient. I keep looking at the devices in the ward and think, “I hope the company that makes this product is as serious about safety as we are”. Ignorance is really bliss sometimes.
What about career planning?
I have reservations about long term career planning as we know it. Call me radical. How could we possibly decide what we want to do when we are 19? Or when we are 40, for that matter. I believe in frequent reality checks as we mature. Take account of each of your positions to see where you are and what your strengths are. Take the next step based on your strengths and core values. These change over time – so will your career objectives. If you ever feel curious about a new direction, be brave and at least give it a chance, no matter your age. If you can do a job in your sleep, go for the one that gives you the butterflies.
How do you manage the pressure?
Most leaders face two kinds of pressures. One, to make sure that they excel at being a motivational and inspirational professional for their team. The other is to be innovative and successful at creating new products while doing number one.
If stress has a nagging effect on you overtaking your life, you need to investigate your approach to work and the way you see things in life. Identify stress factors and see them as opportunities to address shortcomings. Involve the people around you. If you have 20 people in your team, you’ve just expanded your problem-solving capacity to 21.
Conducting an orchestra
As a leader, your job is not to do everything by yourself. You are there to orchestrate, a bit like a conductor does with his orchestra. He cannot possibly play each instrument – the violin, the drum and then jump over and play the bass and the trumpet. Neither can you. The people doing the work is the orchestra. You are important too. But as a leader, it’s not about you any more, but what’s more important is the people you work with and how you get them to accomplish something they can’t do singularly. And when you get everything right, a round of applause may now follow as an acknowledgement of the symphony you helped to create.
What is the legacy that you want to leave on the world?
I’d love to build Amazon #2, but I fear that’s too late. Joking aside, my focus is to inspire first and foremost my children, as well as the people I have worked with throughout my career. We spend a lot of time at work. That’s where I can impact and touch lives and leave a positive impression on those around me. If I can support others with my life experience and work ethics, guiding them at crossroads or when they need it most, I feel I spent my time well. That’s what legacy is for me.